The case of Alexie Navalny’s anti-corruption protests and his subsequent detention by the Russian police, is being discussed in the Western media at a time when elections in Russia are exactly 12 months away. It is important to analyze the basis of these protests which created havoc all over the country as a huge number of young people stormed the Russian cities against the government’s suspected involvement in corruption. Such protests had not taken place since the 2011 Bolotnaya Square protests against the alleged rigging in presidential elections in which Putin’s United Russia party stood victorious.
In March 2017, Alexie, who is an anti-corruption and human rights activist in Russia and runs an Anti-Corruption Foundation, released a video explaining how the top Russian officials and politicians had amassed multi-billion-dollar worth of assets through the embezzlement of public funds or bribes from wealthy businessmen. In an almost 50-minute-long video he claims that Dmitri Medvedev has accumulated ‘a corruption empire’ of luxury properties, yachts and vineyards. Dmitry Medvedev who also remained the President from 2008 to 2012 is currently the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation. In a span of a few days, the video went viral with over fourteen million views on YouTube. It led to the mobilization of many teenagers and young people who rolled out to protest all over the country against the corruption, fraud and embezzlement of public money by those in power.
As per the rules set out by the government, unauthorized public gatherings are not permitted. The State Media and Radio also cautioned against any public protests or gatherings. However, the warnings were ignored by those who were awestruck by Navalny’s research and investigation about the illicit affairs of the government and came out in large numbers. Owing to massive turnout, the government decided to quell the protests in order to keep law and order situation under control. The police were instructed to send the protestors back home and arrest those who failed to comply. Amongst the nearly 1000 people that were arrested, Alexie Navalny was also taken into police custody, later to be charged with failure to obey the police, subsequently resulting in fifteen days in jail by a court order.
It is important to figure out, however, whether the protests were a fruit of a visceral disconnect that the youth feel from the way their country is being governed or from their intellectual rejection of the Russian politics. More so, utilizing the internet to crowd-source the protest is also an element that requires an analysis. In the wake of Crimea’s annexation, the spirits were generally high in the Russian populace. However, the reality soon set in after the bombardment imposed by the US which had a crippling effect on the Russian economy. The falling Oil prices also triggered a further slowdown in the economy. With Russia pulling out of this wreckage – necessitated by its security framework and an overzealous nationalistic political agenda – the morale of the country has been falling.
Alexie Navalny’s realization to strike while the iron is hot is equally substantial: He appreciates that the Presidential elections are approaching fast and he needs to build a vote bank. His conviction and a suspended five years’ sentence could serve as a possible hurdle for him to contest the elections, owing to the Election rules stipulating a ten-year term ban on anyone with a criminal conviction. However, the way Russian law is interpreted could allow for Alexie to contest elections. Be it as it may, Navalny has found in the Russian youth a great support to change the system and allegedly the dishonest Prime Minister. Furthermore, owing to his young and charismatic aura, vibrant personality and ability to utilize a medium that the youth is much more familiar with, i-e the social media such as YouTube and Facebook, Navalny knows which strings to strum. Naturally, it has only fomented a hefty youth base for him within a short span.
To keep the international arena in view whilst delving into the discourse about the Russian political system is advisable. The coincidence of the protests in Russia at a time when the world is focused on the ongoing situation in the United States over President Trump’s connection with President Putin or Russia is curious. Whilst the media’s focus was pinned on the situation in the United States, a large portion of which comprised of bad publicity owing to President Trump’s capricious dealing of the system, the overnight protests in Russia do necessitate an explanation. Prior to this, Mrs. Clinton’s e-mail scandal and the possible imprisonment were also used as excuses to accuse Russia of influencing the domestic politics of the US which the Kremlin vehemently denies. At such a time, the eruption of corruption scandals, protests, and smearing the reputation of the leading Russian party can play a vital role in the upcoming elections. Putin’s reputation that he does not play to appease foreign powers when it comes to national security, stability and sovereignty is being tarnished by linking a colossal corruption scandal to his Prime Minister.
The official spokesman for the Kremlin, Dmitry Peskov, remains insistent that such protests are meant to derail the system, and only a result of provocation by certain elements. Previously, Navalny himself was found complicit in embezzlement from a state timber company in 2013, which he contests claiming it was politically motivated to keep him from assuming a public office. However, Navalny’s support hailing from only a few hundred-thousand people spread all over the country, the goal of reaching the presidency, remains a long shot. Nevertheless, his campaign offices spread all over the country essentially make him a force to reckon with and a sizeable domestic competitor that may give a tough time to the United Russia Party in the near future. That Navalny is targeting Putin’s closest associate, can be instrumental in United Russia losing the next elections to another party, if not to Navalny.
Ultimately, Navalny’s actions and the government’s response are essentially a part of the domestic power tug-game between the two parties – Navalny seeking to hinge onto the power quotient and Putin slamming and bolting up the power house doors to keep Navalny out.